Alliant proposal: Equity, efficiency failure

The proposed Alliant rate increase is a sweeping denial of equitable treatment of customers and a rejection of environmental responsibility.

Alliant Energy, called Interstate Power and Light (IPL) in Iowa, is proposing a nearly 25 percent increase in its basic service rate. Since Alliant divides its charges to customers into energy, transmission, and basic service, the total bill increase will not be that large but it is a pretty big increase.

Since electric utilities are monopolies, some entity needs to “regulate” their actions. In Iowa this is the role of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB), which must decide on the rate increase. The IUB can certainly reduce the proposed rate and can change the way IPL wants to charge individual customers.

Several electricity users in the Decorah area (the city of Decorah, Luther College, Winneshiek Energy District, and others). formed the Decorah Area Group (DAG) and intervened before the IUB to challenge the proposed rate increase. I wrote testimony on rate design for the DAG, and the following is the conclusion of my testimony:

It is apparent to me that IPL’s overriding desire is to sell more electricity at exactly the wrong times. The Company proposes in this case to:

•    Raise the Basic Customer Charge, which is already much higher than that of the other investor-owned electric company in the state; [$13.00 compared to $8.50 charged by MidAmerican Energy. Low-income customers use less electricity so boosting this charge hits them hardest.]

•    Reintroduce declining block rates during the summer peak period, which will likely cause IPL to add capacity for its system; [few utilities give large residential users a break for using more electricity in the summer and so again the smallest users — low income and conservationists are hurt again by this proposal.]

•    Discourage the production of solar power, when encouraging development of solar generation might help IPL to avoid adding generation do accommodate the super peak days; and,

•    Refrain from introducing a “super” off-peak rate that could redirect demand away from peak periods. [Their new meters allow them to make electricity really cheap around midnight so customers could charge electric cars or big capacity water heaters, but they aren’t doing it.]

These proposals, combined with IPL’s actions to convince the Iowa General Assembly to completely bypass the Board and greatly dismantle the state’s energy efficiency programs [in 2017], compels the conclusion that IPL wants to sell more power — not less — especially during the times of the day when IPL’s system is more costly to operate so that IPL will reap more profits.

As noted in the testimony, the Alliant/IPL proposal goes backward on both equity and energy efficiency, which are responsibilities of the IUB to ensure.

IUB’s own mission states that it “regulates utilities to ensure that reasonably priced, reliable, environmentally responsible, and safe utility services are available to all Iowans.” Note — “all Iowans.” This is IUB’s own assurance to even the least-powerful among us that they will be protected in the monopoly marketplace for electricity.

State law [476.1(5)] demands that the IUB “promote the use of energy efficiency strategies by gas and electric utilities required to be rate-regulated.” The Alliant proposal, by contrast, is a recipe for energy inefficiency.

The IUB has limited latitude to deny this rate increase. However, this rate increase is such a sweeping denial of equitable treatment of customers and a rejection of environmental responsibility that they might. The decision will only come after months of more filings and hearings. Stay tuned.

David Osterberg is co-founder and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He is a former state legislator and is IPP’s lead researcher on energy and environment issues.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Science change and climate change

Science is ever changing. It is now possible to show that some of the increase in rainfall from storms and consequent flooding has a human fingerprint.

Science is getting better, and that is bad news for climate change deniers.

Only two years ago when I last taught a climate change course at the University of Iowa, I informed students that claiming any extreme weather event came from changes in the climate was too uncertain.

Now, that view needs revising. After working with Dr. James Boulter, professor of Chemistry in the Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, I have learned more.

The Iowa Policy Project worked with the Environmental Defense Fund to have Professor Boulter produce a report on climate change and flooding in Iowa. Working on this paper, I read material from the last three years that that brought me up to date on science’s ability to attribute extreme weather events to greenhouse gas effects on the climate.

Here is one source for my new understanding of what is known as “event attribution.” It is a statement from a report of the state of science relating to climate change and its physical impacts, in the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).[1]

“…(T)he science of event attribution is rapidly advancing, including the understanding of the mechanisms that produce extreme events and the rapid progress in development of methods used for event attribution.”

Attribution has also been a subject addressed in a recent report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.[2]

Science is ever changing. It is now possible to show that some of the increase in rainfall from storms and consequent flooding has a human fingerprint. We should not deny that, even as fossil-fuel supporters recklessly deny the existence of climate change or that we can already see its effects.

As Professor Boulter stated in his conclusion to the IPP report, “Now, as national politics begin to inundate Iowa’s media landscape — much as the floodwaters overran the physical landscape — it is crucial that science-informed discussions of policy responses to climate change be prominent in our personal conversations, candidates’ political statements and debates, and our community discussions across all forms of media.”

 

[1] Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/3/

[2] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: “Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change,” 2016. https://www.nap.edu/read/21852/chapter/1#x

David Osterberg is founder and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and is IPP’s lead researcher on the environment and energy issues. He is professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

How home solar helps everyone

Solar power not only saves on current generation of high-cost power; it reduces the need for future generating capacity. My own home system shows that.

IPP parody — apologies to Peanuts and the late Charles Shultz

It was a hot and sunny month. … No, this isn’t the opening line of a bad novel; it’s a story about electricity and climate change, and our backyard solar array.

July was indeed hot, which means it was a costly month for electric generation. When the heat index pushes over 100 degrees, and homes and businesses run their air conditioning full tilt, utilities have to purchase more expensive power, from less efficient generating stations, to meet the higher demand. Their costs, and the costs for every consumer, go up.

But here’s the good news. It was a sunny month, which means all those solar arrays at farms and businesses and in people’s back yards were generating power at a great rate. The recently installed array at our home generated 1,749 kilowatt hours of electricity from late June through late July. That was 510 kWh more than we used, for which we received a $14 credit from the utility. (When I use more electricity than I generate, I pay over 12 cents per kWh for the extra; when I generate more than I use, the utility pays me 2.8 cents per kWh.)

But all of that electricity we generated meant that the utility needed to purchase 1,749 kWh less power from the grid, power that was more expensive than average. That savings equates to about the amount of electricity used by two average residential customers in a month.

In the last session of the Iowa Legislature, MidAmerican Energy pushed a bill that would allow them to charge an extra monthly fee to future solar generators, people pretty much like us. That fee would have been enough to make installation of solar unattractive to many, which in turn would have devastated the growing solar installation industry in the state. Their rationale: People like me aren’t paying their share of costs for using the utility’s transmission facilities to sell our home-generated power back to the utility.

Every month I pay a $13.50 “facility charge” regardless of our usage or solar generation. The Iowa Utilities Board, which has to approve all changes in rates proposed by Iowa regulated utilities, is scheduled to undertake a study to see if these kinds of facility charges appropriately reflect the utilities’ cost of accommodating solar generation. But MidAmerican’s proposed bill would have pre-empted the normal rate-setting process with the utilities board and imposed the new fee by legislative fiat before the study was even undertaken to see if any fee was justified.

In pushing their bill, the utility or some unidentified group, sponsored TV advertising to try to get the average Iowan riled up by convincing them that they are subsidizing solar users.

But here’s the thing: Iowa is a summer peaking state. Despite the longer winter heating season, the summer air conditioning season is when electricity usage hits its daily or hourly maximum. All utilities use their most efficient, lower cost generating facilities first, and bring the higher cost facilities on line only when needed. So those high-cost facilities are brought into use just when solar power is doing its thing, when the hours of sunshine are greatest. That reduces the need for that high-cost power, which helps all utility customers.

More importantly, those summer peaks are likely to get worse as climate change worsens. Solar power not only saves on current generation of high-cost power; it reduces the need for future generating capacity by helping to reverse the trend of global warming. That is good not just for electricity consumers, but for the planet and for our grandchildren.

Peter Fisher is research director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org

Ignoring still-serious water threat

Last year, we issued a report on toxic algae and three weeks later the city of Greenfield lost its drinking water. Now we see that the Environmental Working Group has found no improvement. How long before another town faces the same problem Greenfield did?

Iowa detail of map in report showing water test results.

About a year ago the Iowa Policy Project released a report on cyanobacteria in drinking water supplies and recreational waters. A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows things have not gotten better.

Microcystin and other cyanotoxins are still not regulated by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Thus, few drinking water systems test for them. These very dangerous natural chemicals are still on EPA’s candidate list for regulated contaminants but they have made it no further.

When it comes to beach monitoring for the same substances, Iowa still does not use the EPA’s recommended action level and prefers to use on more than twice as high, making any notice to beachgoers of the presence of microcystin less likely.

In high amounts cyanotoxins can make you sick and cause serious long term damage to human health. There are many reports of dogs dying after playing in ponds and licking their fur after.

The EWG report also found further evidence of what we reported last year in our report.

“The late summer months are usually the peak of the algae bloom season, though recent outbreaks are starting earlier and lasting longer. Increased rainfall and rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis are exacerbating the issue.”[1]

Later peaks in blooms and toxins means that the beach monitoring system will not see them since it ends in Iowa on Labor Day. True fewer people will be at beaches, but water supplies are vulnerable later into the year and no one is looking for microcystin in October.

Three weeks after IPP released its report in June 2018, the city of Greenfield, Iowa, closed its drinking water system for about a week because microsystin got in finished water. One wonders if in another three weeks after Thursday’s release we might see another town in the same predicament.

[1] Environmental Working Group, Aug. 8, 2019: “Report: Toxins From Algae Outbreaks Plague Hundreds of Lakes in 48 States,” https://www.ewg.org/release/report-toxins-algae-outbreaks-plague-hundreds-lakes-48-states

David Osterberg is former director and currently lead environmental researcher for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Improve water quality funding equitably

Expand existing state programs to improve waters and overall balance in Iowa tax system.

Iowa has an opportunity to advance equity while improving water quality. The constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly passed in 2010 gave us the option to fund water quality programs with the sales tax, but it’s only a starting place, and we need to explore more equitable funding solutions.

The sales-tax option needs to be paired with options that enhance equity in the way we fund all public services. A comprehensive approach adds other sources — even as we recognize that Iowa policy makers have refused the voters’ clearly stated desire for action.

A new IPP report offers policy options to improve water quality in an equitable way. Iowa voters, in a 2010 statewide referendum, showed their willingness to raise the sales tax in order to fund water quality efforts. The trust fund they authorized remains empty today, nine years later.

As we noted in an April 2019 report, Iowa water quality funding is inadequate.[1] Some will claim new water-quality funding passed in 2018, but it was at best window dressing. New programs had no new revenue source and added little to the mainly federal nutrient reduction funding that exists now.

The sales-tax option remains on the table and is promoted by serious advocates for action. The challenge is to find a way to offset the impact of a sales-tax increase on lower- and moderate-income households. Already, those lower-income families pay the most of any income group, as a percentage of their income, on sales tax. This drives the overall regressive nature of Iowa’s state and local tax system.[2] Analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows why a tax on purchases hits lower income families harder (see graph). Lower-income families spend most of what they earn, and they spend a large share of it on goods and services that are subject to the state sales tax. This is less the case the higher you go on the income scale.

Basic RGB

 

How to fix it? We see two immediate options using existing programs: Boost the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to help working families, and expand Disabled and Senior Citizen Property Tax Credit and Rent Reimbursement Program.

How to pay for it? Use at least part of the revenue from a 1-cent sales tax increase. The constitutional amendment directs three-eights of the first cent to the clean water and recreation trust fund. The key is what happens with the other five-eighths.

According to ITEP data, increasing the state EITC to 20.5 percent of the federal credit (from the current 15 percent) would fully offset that average $124 yearly sales-tax increase for a working family eligible for the EITC. The Rent Reimbursement program can contribute for other low-income families. Those two steps — EITC and Rent Reimbursement — would cost an estimated $30 million,[3] only a small share of the “extra” sales-tax revenue from a 1-cent increase

Taxing the polluter is another policy option for addressing a broader equity concern. Fertilizer used in the agricultural sector is the source of the contamination, yet it is exempt from the general Iowa sales tax. Removing the fertilizer exemption would bring a substantial source of water quality funding: about $110 million annually.[4]

In an already tax system favoring the highest earners, raising the sales tax is not a preferred option. But it can be improved and turned into an opportunity to both improve services and the overall balance in Iowa’s tax system. Those interested in both equity and clean water could embrace that opportunity.

[1] David Osterberg and Natalie Veldhouse, “Lip Service: Iowa’s Inadequate Commitment to Clean Water.” April 2019. Iowa Policy Project. http://iowapolicyproject.org/2019docs/190424-WQfunding.pdf

[2] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “Iowa: Who Pays? 6th Edition.” October 2018. https://itep.org/whopays/iowa/

[3] EITC: $124 for each of the 209,000 taxpayers who receive this credit equals $25,916,000. Renters’ credit: $124 for each of the 32,000 who receive the credit equals $3,968,000. Total about $30 million for the two programs.

[4] $1,845,469,000 X 6 % = $ 110,728,140. The total in the 2017 Census of Agriculture was much smaller than the 2012 figure $2,587,059,000.

 

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Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Iowa: Better sorry than safe

The Iowa DNR says you as a beachgoer have no need to know if toxins in the water might have reached a level that the U.S. EPA believes demands caution.

Iowa environmental officials are taking an unusual position for people charged with protecting the citizens of the state: “Better sorry than safe.”

No, that’s probably not the message you heard from Mom or Dad.

But it is the effect of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) position not to follow tougher rules on water quality to guide warnings to beachgoers.

DNR has decided that if toxins in water reach a risk level suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as right for a warning, that is on a need-to-know basis, and you as a beachgoer have no need to know before you dive in, or before your child or dog splashes around, maybe drinks a little of the lake in the process.

Iowa is sticking with a more relaxed standard, of 20 micrograms of the microsystin toxin per liter, instead of the EPA-recommended 8 microgram level.

The Gazette story by Erin Jordan comes almost a year to the day since an Iowa Policy Project report by Carolyn Buckingham, Mary Skopec and myself showed how little the state is doing to address increasing problems with cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in Iowa waters. The report noted DNR testing had shown increasing numbers of beach advisories from 2009 through 2016, and increases in the number of lakes with advisories against swimming, due to microsystin levels — 17 of the 39 monitored beaches (graph below). And that was recorded under the weaker standard of 20 micrograms per liter.

Microsystin advisories for Iowa lakes, 2006-16Climate change and increased nutrient runoff contribute to increased algal blooms at the heart of the problem. If the number of advisories and lakes affected were to rise even more because of tougher standards, that likely would drive more Iowans to push for changes in policy to address the causes.

Safe might not be the top priority.

Sorry.

David Osterberg is lead environmental researcher and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Water funding exposes shallow commitment

Recent initiative fails to meet needs to improve Iowa water quality

Voters have indicated their support for increasing funding to improve water quality in Iowa, earmarking part of the next sales tax increase for clean water. So far, the protected trust fund for outdoor recreation and water quality remains empty.

Our latest water quality report addresses these issues:

  • What has been the state’s spending commitment to water quality over the past 15 years?
  • How much of state and federal dollars goes to reduce nutrient pollution in Iowa?
  • How much spending is needed to make meaningful water quality progress?
  • How can the state raise adequate revenue to make an impact?

We identified 16 primarily state-level programs that fund water quality improvements. Funding in the most recent year hasn’t even reached 2008 to 2009 levels.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), implemented in 2013, was created to reduce nutrient pollution that creates a hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The strategy was advertised as a new commitment by the state to reduce Iowa’s pollution of our own rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Even with the NRS, we find that state water quality spending has dropped off and struggled to return to pre-2008 recession levels.

190424-WQ-Fig1

The Water Resources Coordinating Council is tasked with overseeing NRS progress, and measures the financial resources dedicated to reducing nutrient pollution from the state of Iowa to the Mississippi River system. The most recent NRS report shows $512 million was spent in state and federal dollars on Iowa nutrient reduction in 2017.[1] However, the state is largely riding the wave here; the real money comes from federal funding.

While it was assumed that adopting the NRS would increase Iowa’s commitment to water quality, it did not — though at the same time pollution has increased. Recent research indicates Iowa’s share of nutrient loading into the Mississippi and Missouri river watersheds actually increased between 2000 and 2016.[2]

In 2018, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill that appropriates $282 million to water quality efforts over the next 12 years.[3] This gesture compares poorly even to existing — and lacking — government water quality spending. Iowa is nowhere near to what is needed.

How much money does it really take to make a meaningful impact on Iowa water quality? The NRS document, written mainly by Iowa State University, estimated the cost of reducing nonpoint contamination under three scenarios. All were in the billions of dollars.

The Iowa Soybean Association estimates for nutrient reduction costs in just one river basin, the Lime Creek Watershed,[4] implies a statewide need of $1.4 billion a year for about 15 years. These estimates demonstrate the inadequacy of the 2018 spending bill.

Current investments are not resulting in discernible improvements in Iowa’s water quality. Two options available for generating the amount of revenue needed include removing the exemption of fertilizer used in agriculture and taxing it like other commodities.

A second option is fully funding the environmental trust that voters approved in a statewide referendum in 2010. Estimated revenue from either of these sources would bring more than $100 million per year. We need to tap new sources to make our state commitment to water quality equal to the task. Until then, we are only paying lip service to the problem.

[1] Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council, “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2017-2018 Annual Progress Report. Page 9.

http://www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/documents/NRS2018AnnualReportDocs/INRS_2018_AnnualReport_PartOne_Final_R20190304_WithSummary.pdf

[2] Christopher Jones, Jacob Nielsen, Keith Schilling, & Larry Weber, “Iowa stream nitrate in the Gulf of Mexico.” April 2018. PLOS. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0195930&type=printable

[3] Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Reynolds signs water quality bill, her first as governor.” January 2018. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/31/reynolds-signs-water-quality-bill-her-first-governor/1082084001/

[4] Iowa Soybean Association Environmental Programs & Services, “Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Plan: A roadmap for improved water quality, sustained agricultural productivity & reduced flood risk. N.D. https://www.iasoybeans.com/search/?q=lime+creek

 

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Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org